Most anyone who knows my taste in literature can tell you I like weird books. From David Mitchell’s Russian-nesting-narratives in Cloud Atlas, to Pynchon’s entropic psychosis in Gravity’s Rainbow, to Nabokov’s self-referential chimera Pale Fire, if it’s a book that’s sort of not a book at all, I’m probably into it. So when a friend lent me Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves in my senior year of undergrad, you can rest assured I was smitten.
Part horror story, part metafictional meditation on art and the self, and (if you ask me, at least) a significant part tragic love story, House of Leaves was a mesmerizing labyrinth of a book, as poetic as it was strange and affecting. Danielewski’s second novel (if you want to call it that), Only Revolutions, was every bit as experimental and ambitious, but threw itself in the opposite direction. Where House of Leaves folded in on itself compulsively with in-text reference passages, inset footnotes burrowing across multiple pages, and jarring typographical shenanigans, Only Revolutions expanded in every direction, stretching across the American countryside it barrels through, careening through world history with its carefully arranged historical events catalogued in the margins, and cartwheeling linguistically, with chaotic, ecstatic poetry taking the place of normal syntax. Beyond their conceptual ambition and well-crafted language, it’s worth noting that Danielewski’s novels are also stunningly put together (check the pictures I’ve included of Revolutions and The Familiar).
So now, with only two novels out (plus the ghost-story novella The Fifty-Year Sword) and most every rule of traditional novel-writing at least severely bent if not outright broken, what was Danielewski to do? Why, write a 27-volume epic about a girl who finds a kitten. Obviously.
Enter The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, released in May 2015, the first in a projected 27 volume series built around a series of nine thus-far loosely connected narratives spanning such locales as Los Angeles, Singapore, and Veracruz, Mexico. Ostensibly, The Familiar follows an epileptic 12-year old girl Xanther, the most endearing protagonist you’re likely to meet these days in contemporary literature, as she navigates middle school and eventually crosses paths, pretty dramatically too, with a near drowned kitten. Danielewski being who he is though, Xanther’s story is not so simple. Loosely woven into her narrative we find a junky called Jing Jing spinning a tale of desperation in Singapore, using a broken, often challenging English; an ambitious, brutally ruthless drug-dealer, Luther, tearing the world up in LA; and a pair of semi-mystic tech specialists on the run in Texas, hiding from someone who seems to be an old friend, though details are scarce. Along with Xanther’s narration of her own life, we also follow Astair and Anwar, her mother and step-father, as they try and manage parenthood, marriage, and their respective professional challenges.
This remarkable narrative complexity and conceptual ambition is of course also paired with a just downright gorgeous presentation on the page itself. Each character receives their own typeface, formatting, and idiosyncratic syntax (such as Astair’s incessant nested parenthetical thoughts or Anwar’s programming brackets, structuring his thought processes to mirror the nested routines and subroutines his coding work involves). While these may read gimmicky at first, by the end of the first volume, these quirks begin creating tone and personality for the words on the page. Simple, sans-serif blocks of text firmly placed in the center of the page with impressive blank margins slowly gives way to a terse, sparsely worded storyline, where tense silence and space seem to carry unspoken threat. Astair’s cascading parenthetical thoughts pull the reader along into her frantic, distracted, and over-stressed mind, while also giving reference to the abundant asides of the academic world she inhabits as a therapist-in-training. Regardless of how you might feel about them, these visual touches add quite a bit to the experience of reading, and help to rework the basic object of a novel into something aesthetically beautiful to hold and see.
A few weeks ago, October 27th to be precise, the second volume of The Familiar, subtitled Into the Woods, dropped. In most every way, it delivers on what the first volume promised. Narratives pick up more and begin bumping into each other, if only tangentially. Troubling occurrences surrounding Xanther foreshadow events and explanations that could very well be a few books off into the future. Prominent themes of love, violence, predation, and power make themselves more known. Perhaps the most noticeable thread struck through this volume is hunger, with Xanther and her newfound kitten both struggling with pangs of intense and very literal hunger, while Luther the dog-fighting drug dealer grapples with his own hunger for power and success across town, Jing Jing faces down the corrosive desires of addiction in Singapore, and a profoundly unsavory meal is prepared south of the border in Mexico. The careful eye will see echoes and reverberations of each narrative strand in the others. For now, these thematic connections are intriguing, enticing even, but the degree to which all of this technical showboating will pay off remains to be seen. We’ve still got some distance to go after all.
That being said, the two volumes of The Familiar manage something which many would argue Only Revolutions failed to accomplish, and some might claim House of Leaves lacked as well. Aside from the fractured and at times difficult to understand language of Jing Jing’s Singapore storyline, The Familiar is compulsively readable. You will, I promise you, become attached to Xanther. You’ll look forward to the pink cornered pages where you pick up her storyline, and you’ll feel her sections are over far too soon. You may not feel as much compassion for her parents Astair or Anwar, but you will devour their stories all the same. The other six scattered narratives will keep you tense, uncomfortable, and entranced. These books are, in short, addictive and enjoyable, passionate and challenging, cerebral and still effortlessly sexy. You should read these.
Picking up a Danielewski novel is always a bit of a gamble. Not that you may find something poorly written or uninteresting, but because they are, at their core, a challenge to what novels are and can be. In the case of The Familiar Volumes 1 & 2, I really cannot give high enough recommendations. Bear in mind, I am a sucker for the weird and experimental in literature. But if you’re willing to take the risk, I highly doubt you will regret picking these novels up, even if it means committing to an eventual 27-volume collection of weird and beautiful books.
Danielewski’s literature has the remarkable and rare quality of constantly challenging the boundaries of the novel, of approaching the act of writing from new perspectives and pushing both readers and the story itself into new and unusual spaces. Some critics have questioned whether an author like Danielewski could bring about the “death of the novel,” but that’s not the case. What Danielewski’s work consistently shows us is that the only thing that could kill the novel is stagnation. What Danielewski does with The Familiar is guarantee we’ll be excitedly ripping open packages containing new novels for years to come. If only for the sole promise of 25 more volumes of The Familiar, the future doesn’t look entirely too bleak these days.